By J SWYGART
All it took, apparently, was a few (or more than a few) meth-heads to help the Adams County Council see the light — and to recognize that light was coming from a train barreling full speed in its direction.
After a long (far too long, some have argued) series of studies, an endless array of consultants and engineers and meetings that have gone on into the wee hours, the council earlier this month made it official: No longer is a new court complex its top priority. That concept has been supplanted from its long-standing perch atop the council’s wish list by the harsh realities that the county’s current jail will simply no longer do.
It was the right decision, albeit one that took far too long to reach.
It was a public safety threat a few years back outside the county’s superior court building — delivered by a man carrying a weapon who reportedly said he was there “to shoot a judge” — that spurred an increased interest by the county council in finding suitable housing for some combination of the county superior and circuit courts, probation department and other related offices.
The structural and security-related deficiencies at the county’s superior court, located in the one-time Carnegie Library on 3rd Street, were deemed serious enough to warrant the intensive and exhaustive talks that followed. Possible sites for a new court complex were studied, researched to death, and ultimately rejected. At one point, officials from the city of Decatur joined the discussion as part of a possible joint city-county venture, but that, too, eventually would fizzle.
That long and winding road led local officials, in the final analysis, back to the exact place in which they started — with a superior court building still littered with admitted security pitfalls and a jail population that has been stretched well beyond capacity.
The county council had to see this coming, and surely its members were equally aware, even as they went through the seemingly endless motions of attempting to put in place some sort of long-term court solution, that any attempt to place before the voters of Adams County a proposal — in the form of a referendum — to help finance a new court complex was doomed to fail from the outset.
Despite unemployment figures that have steadily declined over the past two years, the county’s current economic standing can hardly be described as “robust.” Times are still tight for most families — those whose taxes foot the bill for federal, state and local projects. It’s doubtful they would have been in the mood to pony up to fix a problem that few view as a serious deficiency in their local government.
Now, it seems, those same voters could be approached within the next few years to lend their financial support to the construction of a new jail. The chance of voter approval for that project, at least as viewed through these eyes, seems much greater than it would for any type of court upgrade.
The “law and order” crowd likely would support a new jail, mainly because it goes hand-in-hand with ridding the streets of Adams County of the bad guys (and girls). Bleeding heart, knee-jerk liberals, might join in, if for little reason other than the fact that the current county jail borders on inhumane in the conditions endured by prisoners.
Fiscal conservatives could be persuaded to support a new jail on several counts, from the whopping sum of money it will cost the county to do nothing to the possibility of a lawsuit — similar to the one filed in Vigo County earlier this year for its breech of a 2002 agreement that capped the jail population at a predetermined level — that could further drain county coffers.
To hear county council members talk, construction of a new jail is inevitable within the next five years.
That’s too long. The need is there now. Why wait?
Low-level felony offenders likely will be turned over to local jurisdictions starting next year, thanks to the Indiana General Assembly and its botched attempt at sentencing reform. And meth users, if the current trend continues (what reason do we have to believe it won’t?), will take up ever-increasing bed space — or floor space, as the case seems to be now — at the county’s small and antiquated county jail.
Over the next five years construction costs will rise, as will inmate populations and the likelihood of a lawsuit over jail over-crowding.
Perhaps local voters, when confronted with the option, will reject a jail referendum. But waiting five years to find out seems to be a costly mistake.
The writer is the managing editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat. He may be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org